OAKLAND, Calif. – A very sore 38-year-old Steve Nash sat calmly with two towels covering most of his body and feet submerged in a frigid ice bucket. The 17-year NBA veteran may have looked worn out, but his play on the court was anything but sluggish.
Playing in his first game since Halloween, Nash provided a much-needed spark for the floundering Los Angeles Lakers, contributing a solid 40-plus minutes to power his team to a 118-115 overtime win over the lively Golden State Warriors.
"I got through it. It was only my third day of basketball in seven-plus weeks, so it was a lot. But I didn't feel too bad," said Nash, who finished with 12 points and nine assists.
The veteran missed 24 games after fracturing his left fibula against the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 31. While the leg healed well, a nerve irritation prolonged his absence a month longer than expected. Without Nash and injured backup point guard Steve Blake (who told Yahoo! Sports he could return as early as mid-January), the Lakers looked like a posh-but-rudderless ship under different two coaches in Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni.
The storied franchise entered the season with warranted championship aspirations, stacked with an All-Star lineup in Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and another newcomer in Dwight Howard. But with Nash sidelined after two games, Howard still recovering from a back injury and Gasol struggling under D'Antoni, the Lakers were a laughable mess at 12-14 (even after a three-game win streak) and were being scored on at will.
While still early in the season, D'Antoni's team was in search of something to save them even with Bryant and Howard playing. And Nash was viewed as the needed jolt. The seasoned guard didn't disappoint on Saturday, slicing through the Warriors' defense time and again to create open looks for Kobe Bryant and others.
"I'm not oblivious to what people are saying and what is expected in a lot of corners," Nash said. "But for me, I just try to embrace pressure. When you look back on your career, it's playing with pressure and playing in key minutes that you're going to miss. So you might as well make the most of it while it's here because that's not something we are going to face the rest of our lives."
Nash admitted to having some butterflies entering his 1,155th career NBA regular-season game, but that was hardly evident on the floor early on – in 17 first-half minutes, he scored seven points on 3-of-3 shooting, in addition to four assists and three rebounds.
While Nash's presence immediately opened up the offense and led to easier buckets, the Lakers' abysmal defense continued. The Warriors, stalking a playoff berth of their own, were up 61-53 at halftime after shooting 51.1 percent from the field.
Even so, Nash and the Lakers remained confident.
"You can't build on anything without hard work and perseverance," Nash said. "There was a stretch there where the lead could have gotten to 20 for them. But we hung in there. … Just keeping it at 13 was important. It allowed us to creep back at the end of the game."
The Lakers still trailed 87-74 at the end of the third quarter before rallying to set up one of the better seesaw finishes of the regular season. Bryant had a chance to finish it in regulation, but his contested jumper missed the mark and sent the game to overtime knotted at 108-108.
D'Antoni said before the game that there were no time restrictions on Nash, but the coach hadn't anticipated overtime.
"I asked him, 'Are you OK?' " D'Antoni said. "He said, 'Yeah, great.' So he just keeps on going 40 minutes after not playing for like seven weeks. He's unbelievable down the stretch and he just made some great plays."
It was in the extra period that the veteran point guard's poise seemed to have the greatest influence as the Lakers' offense flowed smoothly while shooting 50 percent from the field. Bryant led the way with six of his game-high 34 points, including an ode to Harlem Globetrotters legend Curly Neal in which he kept his dribble on his knees before getting up and nailing a turnaround 13-foot jumper to give the Lakers a 116-112 lead with 1:38 remaining.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry had a rebuttal, making a 3-pointer to trim the deficit to one point. Nash, however, poetically sealed the Lakers' season-high fourth win by sinking a 14-foot fade-away jumper with 16.9 seconds remaining in OT. Afterward, Bryant said the key to the Lakers' offense was the organization under Nash.
"He orchestrated things," Bryant said about Nash. "He got us in some sets and some actions and that's exactly what a great point guard is supposed to do. He lined us up and saw things that were executing well for us and he went to them."
For the first time since the Shaquille O'Neal days, there is a player that actually faced more pressure than Bryant to get the Lakers back on track. It was just one game. But the oldest Laker finally made the team look the projected championship part in his return.
"I try to embrace it," Nash said about the pressure. "I try to allow it to test my skill and toughness. I think after 17 years I can understand and maybe deal with it. We got a long way to go for a good team. But as far as the pressure on me goes, I don't look at this like I'm the savior. Our team is still trying to form. Hopefully, I can help that process.
"If we become a great team it's not down to me. If we don't, it's not down to me either."
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